Fancy a dance into the fire? Step on up…
EDIT: Since posting this review, I attempted to rank all of the Bond films and could only settle on a top ten, and it turned out that A View to a Kill did indeed make it in there, so please disregard my assumption at the start of this piece…
The Bond film I’ve seen more than ANY OTHER is now 35 years old.
Let me clarify – I don’t think A View to a Kill is the best Bond film. It’s not in my top 5, and I don’t think it would make my top ten either. However, it is a Bond film that I hold very, very dear to my heart. I was born in 1981, so the tail-end of the Roger Moore era and the Dalton films are the Bond films that were the most current in my mind the earlier I think back to when I was a lil’ boy. Indeed, A View to a Kill was the first Bond film I remember being premiered on ITV, for example. I think it was on a Wednesday, maybe? Who knows. I didn’t watch it in full – all I saw was some of the pre-credits sequence, with Bond being pursued by Russian bad guys on skis. I wasn’t quite a Bondhead just yet.
Let’s jump a few years later, to around 1990 most likely, and I was very much a total Bond nut, and this was the era where all I had to go on was those ITV television screenings. If you only had a Betamax player like me, then forget trying to save up to buy the VHS tapes. That’s why those Bank Holiday Monday screenings, or those Christmas showings, or the occasional Bond Season on Saturday nights were such a big deal. Back when a movie on the TV was a huge event. Okay, maybe film premieres weren’t making the front page of the TV Times anymore (like they did when Star Wars got its terrestrial debut), but they still were major things.
Watching A View to a Kill in full was particularly exciting because it was the most recent of the Bond films I’d seen at the time, and for all the criticisms you can throw at it (which we’ll get into later), that didn’t really mean anything to a 9-10 year old boy who was just utterly gripped by the espionage, adventure, excitement, family-friendly violence, irresistible Bond charisma (man, I loved Roger Moore, and still do) and utterly dastardly villainy. One thing that stood out from the start and that I have never lost my enthusiasm for is Christopher Walken’s bad guy, the ‘leading French industrialist’ (according to Minister of Defence Frederick Gray) and ‘utter fucking nut’ (everybody else) Max Zorin, the kind of villain I absolutely adored to hate – with his striking peroxide-blonde looks, wicked grin, maniacal laugh, truly choice dialogue and smooth cruelty, he was an antagonist that was the perfect foil for Moore’s Bond. I love Bond villains – the very best are so good that it’s almost a shame when custom dictates they have to die. I imagine a parallel universe where Zorin makes it out alive and somehow Operation Main Strike (his attempt to flood Silicon Valley with a nuclear blast, wiping out the microchip market and leaving his brand of chips the only viable, purchasable option- yep, it’s Goldfinger for the 80s) becomes a hit. Walken’s Zorin proved such a hit with me that I remember being insanely excited that he was going to be in Batman Returns in 1992 – never mind that I was already giddy with pleasure over the casting of Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman, my favourite screen villain was also going to be in it too! They’re just two reasons why Batman Returns is my favourite in the series, as well as one of my favourite films ever.
Zorin’s villainy and the occasional cruel streak of violence (especially near the end) is evidence against the prosecution that insists A View to a Kill is total silliness. Don’t get me wrong – the humour is a constant presence, and when it works it’s wonderful, but sometimes (the dreadful insertion of a cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’ in an otherwise exciting pre-credits scene, for example) it does indeed derail the momentum. However, we also get some pretty chilling scenes of brutality, such as when Bond’s lovable sidekick Sir Godfrey Tibett (a brilliant Patrick Macnee, with whom Moore has splendid chemistry) is inevitably killed in a car wash, or the poor KGB spy who tests the integrity of the underwater fans in one of Zorin’s hideouts the hard way, with pretty bloody results. Zorin’s dispatching of the weaselly San Francisco mayor (Daniel Benzali from Murder One, back when he had some hair, bless him) is truly wicked, with Zorin more-or-less detailing the process of the poor guy’s impending murder just before it happens. Although for all its cruelty, it’s still rather neat. Don’t you think?
Then there’s the utterly vicious moment, which Roger Moore was most definitely not a fan of, when Zorin, out to tie up loose ends, exterminates his workforce with the help of his git henchman Scarpine (Patrick Bauchau, whom Dario Argento fans will recognise as the poor copper who had to break his own thumb to free his cuffed hand in Phenomena). Laughing like an absolute psycho, he happily guns down anyone and everyone, giggling like a schoolboy at these poor saps who happen to get electrocuted or drown. Now, you may be thinking – hey, these guys work for a master criminal hell bent on world domination, they deserve what they get. I point you towards the scene in Clerks re: the morality of those who chose to work on the Death Star for a better-expressed argument over this sort of thing. Anyway, this scene is shocking, and remains the ultimate example in all of film history of a bad guy who is so evil he’ll kill his own men at a whim, and yet the delirious, crazed malevolence of Walken’s performance makes it almost as much a twisted delight as much as it is disturbing.
A little more obviously fun (though still pretty eye-opening as a child) was the bit when one of Zorin’s potential business partners, balking at the ‘outrageous terms’ he’s expected to adhere to, is permanently removed from Operation Main Strike’s future plans when falls down a trick staircase and out of a goddamn AIRSHIP (and there’s us thinking their meeting was on the ground all this time…) – the look Zorin and May Day (Grace Jones, more on her later) share, the little wink, the absolutely hilarious ‘so…does anyone else want to drop out?’ zinger…man, this villain is the best. Alongside Robert Davi’s amazing Sanchez in Licence to Kill, he’s my favourite Bond bad guy. Who doesn’t love the way he theatrically raises his arms up to herald the reveal of the miniature of Silicon Valley like that? Genius. And as we know, the secret to genius is intuitive improvisation, which is why I thought about writing this piece an hour ago and hope to publish it in the next hour.
So yeah, I do think that for all its silliness, A View to a Kill does take its main threat seriously, and as a child I was utterly gripped by its escalating stakes. The spectacular final battle atop the Golden Gate Bridge could have done with a bit more of that old vertigo-inducing fear-factor to really give this scrap an extra edge, but it’s still the face-off the film promised and Walken truly defines the term ‘having the last laugh’. What an absolutely tremendous villain. The other big action scenes are pretty ludicrous at times, but I love them. Almost all of them are interjected with the odd silly moment – the fire engine pursuit that ends up exposing a canoodling couple after the truck wipes out the top half of their mobile home, the bloke trying to relax with an afternoon’s fishing in the middle of an earthquake, Bond gatecrashing a wedding party on a boat – but they’re still pretty exciting, even if for the most part we’re not watching Roger Moore, but a stuntman doing the hard work.
Yes, there’s no two ways about it. Roger Moore was too old to play Bond at this point, but once you accept that he’s here, and that he ain’t getting any younger, he’s as utterly, utterly wonderful as ever. He and the character of Bond were a match made in 00-Heaven, and he has the smoothness, the seriousness, the lightness and of course, the charm, down perfectly. Making a character entirely your own after the monolithic presence of Sean Connery was surely impossible, and yet he did it. Because of him, the character of Bond became something truly malleable, and who could never, ever die. He’s my joint-fave Bond along with Dalton. They’re the Bonds I grew up with, and they kinda complement each other beautifully.
As for the rest of the cast, well we had Grace Jones, that magnificent pop star who crossed over into the world of film in the 80s with always very interesting results. She held her own against Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer nicely, and made for one of the most terrifyingly primal screen vampires of the decade in the fantastic Vamp, but as May Day she made probably her biggest impression, unsurprisingly given that she was the deputy villain in one of the biggest movies of its year. Jones is one hell of a striking looking star – she always looks sensational, and exudes an androgynous, compelling presence. Very Bowie. Imagine if David Bowie had accepted the role of Zorin as originally offered? I mean, the two of them together? That could have been truly something. But we got Walken, and I got no regrets, because he’s the best Zorin imaginable. May Day is the blunt instrument of Zorin’s schemes (that is, until he gets in on the act with a vengeance later on), killing off nearly all of Bond’s contacts with ruthless efficiency. She also gets a fantastic moment where her character jumps off the Eiffel Tower. That was the bit the TV ads always showed. She’s pretty scary, and okay, she becomes a goodie near the end which does takes the edge off her a bit, but hey, when your boyfriend tries to kill you, then of course you’re gonna switch sides! She also gets a love scene with Roger Moore, which turned out to be one of the more unexpected couplings in 80s cinema. Here she is slapping herself in the face, so delighted she is with her own evil.
Patrick Macnee’s a total delight as Tibbett – he has a real warmth and great repartee with Moore, and his death never fails to bring me down. Lois Maxwell makes her final appearance as Moneypenny, but I like to think her incarnation ended up living the high life with all the money she won with the winning Pegasus ticket at the races near the start of the film. One of the film’s more debated elements is the presence of Tanya Roberts as Stacey Sutton, the geologist who spends an inordinate amount of time in peril, screaming ‘JAMES!!!’ at least 367 times and failing to notice airships creeping up behind her. She’s not one of the best Bond women in the series, and she has little to no agency, but at least Bond has respect for her, unlike the way he looks down on the series other serious doofus, Mary Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun, whom we were all meant to think was an idiot. Therefore, Stacey doesn’t really bother me that much. The other characters are a range of villains either subdued (Scarpine) or cartoonish (the monocle-wearing Nazi war criminal Mortner), there are gorgeous (if underused) women for Bond to flirt and occasionally bed (the hilariously named Jenny Flex, or Pola Ivanova, whose Tchaikovsky is well and truly tickled by the bubbles in her bath) and of course, there’s the always great Q (Desmond Llewellyn) with his peeping-tom robot dog. Robert Brown continues to make the character of M his own. It’s a fun roster.
And A View to a Kill is fun. No doubt about it. It’s a bit ropey, a bit knackered, but often inspired and always entertaining. Tying it all together with the expected class is John Barry’s sensationally good score. Well, I say ‘class’ – he takes one of his best action cues and gives it the name of ‘Snow Job’ for fuck’s sake, so there’s always that, but it doesn’t stop that theme from becoming just as amazing as the one he devised for Octopussy‘s action scenes. That both cues are exclusive to their respective films makes them all the more special. The ‘Snow Job’ theme is so good that I’m more than happy when it reappears two more times in the film, each with their own variations, the final iteration for the final battle the most satisfying. The remaining themes are all full of intrigue, suspense, dread, excitement….Barry’s amazing. You all know that. It’s another incredible score, and he really gives us a truly, truly beautiful love theme for Bond and Stacey too. Romantic, seductive and dreamy, it was so wonderful that it also ended up as the B-side for the title song.
Ah yes, the title song. One thing I’m sure of is that its theme song IS my favourite in the series. Notably, this was the last song performed by the classic line-up of Duran Duran, before they went off and did side projects and came back with some of the band missing, and boy did they go out on a high. An all time high, maybe? Nope. Wrong tune. Still, ‘A View to a Kill’ is a perfect, perfect pop song – preposterous lyrics, an almost unrelenting run of hooks and musical tics that make each second of its three-and-a-half length an absolute joy, and superb co-production by Chic’s Bernard Edwards. It is at once an amazing Bond theme, full of danger, sexiness and irresistible fun, and yet it is also an amazing pop song – this got to #2 in the UK and #1 in the US! It still gets played on the radio! Do I have one criticism? Man, I wish that fade-out lasted longer, after Le Bon stops singing…man, that’s a killer groove the band (and of course, Barry’s magnificent strings) have got going. It actually does last a bit longer in the film’s end credits, so there’s that to resort to.
So there you have it. A View to a Kill is 35 years old today, and though it’s arguably the weakest of the 80s Bond films, John Glen gave us a great send-off for Moore and an adventure that, whilst it has is detractors, has just as many adoring fans who can’t get enough of it. For a brief spell in the mid-nineties, our home acquired cable TV and the Sky Movies channels, and one of those channels felt the need to repeat A View to a Kill constantly. And I felt the need to watch it every time. It was just a total tonic. Total escapism. Total entertainment. Because of those Sky screenings, it is, as I confessed at the start of this piece, the Bond film I’ve seen more than any other, and by some considerable margin. I’m quite proud of that.